The young woman stood for a moment in the doorway of the long hall, lined on each side by beds and cots, and breathed a sigh of relief. She was well pleased that the sun, albeit a pale wintry one, was shining on that chilly March morning. It entered through the many windows of the rambling set of interconnected buildings that made up the Houses of Healing on the sixth level of Minas Tirith and illuminated the ward where she would work today.
She wheeled the heavy cart through the doorway, approached the nearest bed and presented a grey-haired, but ruggedly handsome, soldier of Rohan with a metal plate holding a cup of tea and a fat slice of fresh bread.
"May I ask, Mistress Lothíriel, what it is that brings a smile to your pretty face this morning?" he inquired easily in the Common Tongue.
"Why, the sun, of course! Only two days ago we thought we would never see the sun again," answered Lothíriel. She could feel her smile broadening. The older warrior was one of her favorites among the Rohirrim who crowded this particular hall.
Leaning closer to him, she whispered conspiratorially, "Also, this ward is my preferred assignment and I will be working here all week."
As she continued to push and pull her wheeled cart down the center of the ward filled with soldiers of Rohan, she recalled how the Houses of Healing had been crowded well beyond capacity, even before admitting all of the wounded from the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But already, a little more than two days later, the beginning of a daily routine was in place.
Since yesterday, she had mopped floors and scrubbed every surface and object in her work area many times. In the brief training she received less than a week ago, the Warden of the Houses of Healing impressed on princess of Dol Amroth that cleanliness was at least as important as skill in the care of their patients. The Warden originally had seemed skeptical about her ability to carry out orders without questioning, execute menial tasks, and withstand the necessarily repulsive sights and sounds.
"I can scarcely imagine a less likely place for the pampered Princess of Dol Amroth, or any Gondorian lady for that matter," he had said gruffly.
"I was raised the only female in a household of warriors, Warden. And I am unused to idleness. If you are displeased with my work, I promise to leave immediately without argument," she had told him.
She had not been afraid of staying alone in the castle of Dol Amroth, although she had argued it would not be safe. She knew she would have had defenders there and have been among the last to die, as she would be here, if it came to that. Her terror had been of the waiting, the not knowing. She was surprised that Prince Imrahil had allowed her to come to Minas Tirith, until she realized that perhaps he wanted his children near him as much she wanted to be here.
The noises from the Pelennor Fields, those terrifying hours when Lothíriel first witnessed deaths of unspeakable horror, mutilations, and the no less hideous amputations and surgeries, had finally passed. Relief in the knowledge that her father and brothers lived, and that her dear cousin Faramir would survive, replaced the cold fear that had rested in her chest like a ball of iron. But the joy of that reprieve had passed like a transitory flash of light.
Those she loved best had come to see her a number of times. She could not, would not leave this place; there were so many who needed care and so few to tend them. Her father promised that he and her brothers would come again to say farewell. She read in their eyes that they did not expect to return from the next, last battle. She kissed her brothers and her father, touching their dear faces repeatedly, and tried to smile. They would leave without regret, although not without dread, and she would let them go, stoically clinging to the fool's hope that they might return.
No one talks of probabilities. We live in the moment. There are injured men to feed; there are bandages to change; there is comfort to be given and the dead to be honored. Tomorrow those men who can walk or ride will leave for the Black Gate of Mordor.
This morning it was quiet. And she was, for the moment, content to have rested a few hours and to have discarded yesterday's bloodied clothing for a clean dress. She was pleased to look after these brave men of Rohan, far from the sights and sounds of the most seriously injured. Some of them, especially among the older men, spoke the Common Tongue, and even those who did not could convey gratitude, and pleasure at the sight of a pretty face, with their eyes and smiles. They did not brood, although their losses had been horrific. They were confident that their honor was intact. Their manners were not elegant, but they treated her with a natural respect, which made her feel safe even as a lone young woman among men.
Especially when they are all bedridden, she thought wryly, and there is no alcohol available. Yes, I love them for their pride and what they suffered in defense of Gondor in her direst hour, despite scant hope of victory. They have lost their king and many valiant warriors. Yet, they treat me, a privileged young woman of Gondor, as though I do something gracious for them. If the memory of their heroism clouds my reason a little, I do not mind. But, I think I do not exaggerate their nobility of soul.
Then she caught sight of him again: a nameless captain of Rohan, handsome, strong and tall, with a thick mane of straw-colored hair. He had captured her attention and admiration over the last day and a half. She had seen him several times now. He frequently came to check on his countrymen. He walked through the rows of recuperating Rohirrim, tough graying warriors and bright-haired young men, clasping hands, or kissing foreheads or cheeks. He spoke briefly to each man and even softly laughed. Although she had not spoken to him or to anyone about him, she had given him the name of "my horse lord." Does he bring comfort to or draw comfort from these men? No matter, he brings great solace to me. He looks toward me and warms me with a boyish smile and I return it with the same candor with which it is given. Here, at the end of all days, there is no time for downcast eyes or maidenly false modesty.
Walking toward her, he smiled broadly and spoke, not in Rohirric nor even in common speech, as she had expected, but in Sindarin as spoken by Gondorian nobility. He teases me, she thought, as though to tell me that he finds me out of place here. He is much younger than I had thought. "My lady, are you a healer?"
He touched his shoulder and moved it gingerly with an annoyed grimace. His bold yet tender eyes, which met hers and held them, betrayed him as a man who truly liked women and expected they would like him in return. His manner held nothing of the urbane formality of a noble of Minas Tirith, or the exaggerated courtliness of her coastal homeland.
She answered him in the Common Tongue, to let him know she was no elegant lady here, "To call me a healer would be to greatly devalue the profession, but since you are on your feet, smiling, and I see no blood, I am likely to be the best you will find. Our most skilled healers deal only in matters of life or death. Would you like me to look at your shoulder?"
"Yes, my lady, if you would be so kind. I must leave before dawn and I need to be able to use my sword," he laughed dryly.
She led him to an alcove lined with shelves holding small towels, narrow rolls of cloth, and jars of herbs and ointments. A pot of steaming water bubbled gently over the flame of a small stove. Suddenly shy, away from the eyes of her charges, she blushed slightly and said, "My lord, we will need to remove your tunic." Together they managed to pull it off with only a little discomfort on his part.
He is well made and agreeably muscled; unlike my youngest brother, he has the body of a fully-grown man. Perhaps he is 25 years of age, or a little more or less, Lothíriel thought. I truly cannot guess. Men of our lineage come slower than many to their full maturity. I have tended Rohirrim warriors these last two days, who, while exceedingly tall and broad, would be thought mere boys in Dol Amroth if years alone were considered. She gasped at the extent of the mottled red and purple bruising, covering a large portion of his upper right chest and shoulder and extending under his arm and onto his back.
"It is not pretty," he said, "but surely you have seen worse these last two days."
She nodded grimly, "That I have. Yet, before that, I would have considered this a grave injury. This may hurt a bit, but I will try to be careful," she said, almost laughing at how like one of the experienced healers she sounded. Firmly, but gently, she kneaded the bruised area of his chest, shoulder and back, searching for bone beneath the muscle. Nothing appeared to be broken or out of place. She found the ointment she sought on a shelf behind her and rubbed it thickly on his skin. The smell was strong but not unpleasant. She cautiously wrapped the area with bandages. "Can you move your arm?"
"Yes," he answered, raised his arm and swung it gently, as though he held a sword.
"It is not too tight, is it? The bandages should give you support without restricting your movement."
"I think you have done very well, my lady. Now, are not you supposed to tell me to rest and not use my arm for ten days?"
Lothíriel sighed and laughed bitterly, "Indeed, in a perfect world I would. But I have seen how your men depend on you and I am sure your new king does too."
He laughed aloud. His easy joking manner reminds me of my brothers. She began to wash her hands and dry them, when he took the towel from her and slowly finished drying her hands. I caught my breath at his gesture. So simple, yet so provocative.
"Tell me, how does a lovely lady of Minas Tirith learn to do these things?" he asked leaning toward her slightly.
"Very quickly," she responded, not moving away. "One of the healers told me to think of it as similar to checking my horse for an injury. The difference is that I did not fear you would kick me," she laughed again. "But I am not a lady of Minas Tirith. Ladies of Minas Tirith do not tend their own horses." They have not had the freedom I have had to sneak off into the stables, saddle my horse and ride along the beach.
"I am sure you are a fine lady by your bearing and your speech. If not of Minas Tirith, then are you an Elvish princess of an enchanted realm?" he asked, taking hold of her lower arms and drawing her closer. He has been schooled in more than horses, she thought, but not in the conventions of my peers which would forbid him to touch me thusly.
"I have little experience with men, my lord, but I have heard that flattering remark expressed in those precise words before."
"Then, if I cannot compete in compliments with the high lords of Gondor," he laughed, "I will try Rohirrim directness. Will you hearten this soldier with a kiss before I set out for Mordor with Armies of the West tomorrow?"
He did not need to add that it was unlikely he would return and he did not have to ask twice. In an instant, with no thought of discretion, or the honor of Dol Amroth, I was in his arms. For if our world did end, prudish propriety would have been of little use. I would have a kiss from my horse lord. I was not sure that I would know what to do, but he taught me. Though he was careful with his hands, perhaps afraid that otherwise I might bolt like a skittish horse, he was not cautious with his kisses. His bare skin was warm beneath my hands. Finally, I cast off the tattered remnants of my pride, summoned all my courage and asked him, 'You will find me when you return?' He answered, 'If I return, my lady, you may be certain that I will find you.'
Now, as I wait, I think of him when grim reality is more than I can bear.